Dr. Saturday - NCAAF

An absurdly premature assessment of the 2011 Utes.

Previously On… Arizona and Iowa may come close, but frankly, no team fell harder or faster last November than Utah, an undefeated, top-10 contender on Nov. 1 that skidded out of the polls altogether by the new year. The Utes' 8-0 start melted away in grisly fashion in back-to-back losses at the hands of TCU and Notre Dame, games the Horned Frogs and Fighting Irish won by a combined score of 75-10; two weeks later, Utah limped out of a one-point, come-from-behind triumph over BYU that wasn't decided until an unlikely blocked field goal on the final snap, and straight into another beatdown in the bowl game, this time by ostensible peer Boise State.

But it was Utah's third consecutive 10-win season in the end, and it's still the Utes, not Boise, finally movin' on up this summer to the Pac-12, a league they've handled just fine over the last decade.

The Big Change. Urban Meyer left Salt Lake City six years ago, but the basic structure of the balanced, shotgun-based spread scheme he introduced in 2003 have continued to more or less guide the offense in the meantime. The most obvious departure from that blueprint has been the gradual abandonment of the quarterback as a running threat with the offense in the hands of Jordan Wynn, who (including sacks) has carried the ball 41 times for a grand total of one yard since taking over as the starter midway through his freshman season in 2009. With venerable pocket-passing guru Norm Chow en route from UCLA, they can drop the pretense and go West Coast full-time.

The Least You Should Know About...

Utah

•• In 2010
10-3 (7-1 Mtn. West, 2nd place); Lost Maaco Las Vegas Bowl.
•• Past Five Years
2006-10: 50-15 (31-9 Mtn. West); One of seven teams with three straight 10-win seasons.
•• Five-Year Recruiting Rankings*
2007-11:2007N/A443237.
•• Best Player
What, you wanted a sexy pick to go with the fancy new offense? Sorry: Sans almost two-thirds of last year's total offensive production at the skill positions, the transition from the spread option hinges on the offensive line. And sans two first-team All-MWC picks, the success of the line hinges largely on right tackle Tony Bergstrom, a 6-foot-6, 315-pound, 24-year-old mainstay who earned a second-team all-conference nod as a junior. In fact, "mainstay" is something of an understatement: Between his 26 consecutive starts, Salt Lake City roots and Ute-blooded in-laws, Bergstrom is positively entrenched.
•• Best Year Ever

The perfect 2008 team navigated a tougher schedule, bagged a bigger prize in the bowl game and finished on the doorstep of a national championship. For sheer dominance, though, the scrappy '08 edition couldn't hold a candle to the 2004 Utes, whose scorched-earth run to 12-0 left a long trail of suffering and dead: Urban Meyer's second team dispatched opponents by 26 points per game in the regular season — none came within two touchdowns — then thumped Big East champ Pittsburgh 35-7 in the Fiesta Bowl, a fitting farewell for Meyer and prolific quarterback Alex Smith before they shipped off for Florida and the No. 1 pick in the 2005 NFL Draft, respectively.

•• Best Case
The passing game takes off under Chow; veteran front seven keeps the defense in the top 25 against the run; Utes take advantage of a schedule that misses and Oregon and Stanford and brings Washington, Arizona State, Oregon State, UCLA and Colorado to Salt Lake City. 9-3, Pac-12 South champs, Holiday Bowl.
•• Worst Case
Jordan Wynn struggles, the running game stagnates behind partially rebuilt line; the entirely new secondary fails to come together; week-in/week-out grind of the Pac-12 slate is a steeper step up in class than expected. 6-6, back in the Maaco Las Vegas Bowl.
* Based on Rivals' national rankings (top 50 only)

Either way, it will be Wynn's offense all the way: Leading rushers Eddie Wide and Matt Asiata are both gone, along with starting receivers Jereme Brooks and Shaky Smithson and, with them, over 60 percent of last year's total yards from scrimmage. A pair of All-MWC linemen, Caleb Schlauderaff and Zane Taylor, are on their way out, too; so is Wynn's top backup, Terrance Cain, for good measure. But Wynn remains an enigma himself. In keeping with the team's fade, he followed a blistering October run with brutal efforts in the losses to TCU and Notre Dame, and for the first three quarters of the narrow escape against BYU. He sat out the bowl game with a shoulder that's also sidelined him for the spring, postponing his on-field initiation under Chow's hand.

Big Men On Campus. Faced with replacing veteran tackle machines Stevenson Sylvester and Mike Wright at linebacker, the Utes crossed their fingers last September and trotted out two former walk-ons, Chaz Walker and Matt Martinez, who had never started a game at linebacker or anywhere else. Opposing offenses noticed no difference: Walker and Martinez finished first and second on the team with more than 200 total tackles between them, leading a unit that finished second in the conference — behind only national leader TCU — in both rushing and scoring defense, and led the league in sacks.

They've been joined this spring by a far less subtle talent, sophomore Brian Blechen, who won multiple Freshman All-American nods last year as a safety. He's moving down to add more speed to a corps that's already in on pretty much every play as it.

Open Casting. Blechen's move to linebacker and cornerback Brandon Burton's premature exit for the draft leaves the secondary to a gaggle of candidates with zero career starts between them — which, given their human torch routine down the stretch, may not be an entirely negative development. At least the new corners, Ryan Lacy and Conroy Black, have played a little in nickel and dime situations. The returning safeties are so green that one of the starting spots is readily expected to fall to incoming transfer Keith McGill, a big (6-4, 215 pounds) four-star juco All-American, while the other may well fall to a true freshman.

Overly optimistic spring narrative. UCLA tenure notwithstanding, Chow's reputation for developing first-rate quarterbacks in high-octane passing games is legendary, and Wynn's hitting the right point in his career to make a leap, if not into a first-rate Pac-10 slinger on the order of an Andrew Luck or Matt Barkley, then at least into a viable starter capable of lifting the Utes to the top of the Pac-12 South. On that note, it certainly doesn't hurt that they landed on the right side of the new divisional divide, where the only rival that clearly outclasses Utah in terms of overall talent, USC, is currently ineligible for the division crown.

The Big Question: Who are the new playmakers?
At the front of the line there's leading receiver DeVonte Christopher, and then a gaping void where Asiata, Brooks, Smithson and Wide carried a lion's share of the load the last two years. The leading returning receiver behind Christopher, Luke Matthews, has already been moved into the backfield as a prospective fullback, now that the offense has a fullback. The leading candidates at tailback this spring are a true freshman (Harvey Langi), another juco transfer (John White) and a former pro rugby player (Thretton Palamo). Someone has to emerge from that group, or Chow may be in for some very nasty UCLA flashbacks.

- - -
Other premature assessments (in alphabetical order): Arkansas. … Central Michigan. … Georgia Tech. … Iowa State. … Louisiana-Lafayette. … Marshall. … Nebraska. … Pittsburgh. … Nevada. … South Florida. … Syracuse.

Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.

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